The relationship of "hi-lo" culture 

November 15, 2001

A correspondent mentions:

>Culture formation---relationship of "hi-lo" culture has been a major area of study and research last 2 decades.<

Yes, quite a few people find the idea a bit worn out, and some think it had theoretical flaws from the beginning. In a word, the division "hi-low" is not very descriptive. It is vague and creates confusion and provokes unnecessary ideological tension. Also, by trying to level the relationship between those two kinds of music, the very problematic relationships between commercial and non-commercial culture in capitalistic economies seemed to be brushed aside. Rightly or wrongly, classical musicians (for lack of a better term) asked themselves, why extol Madonna, who hardly needs the help, while composers like LeBaron, Shatin, Payne, or Oliveros remain so much less supported and seem to be striving for something that could be important for a wider public? Unfortunately, the ideological standpoints became so dualistic, devisive and entrenched that few dared even address the division of views lest they unleash a torrent of harsh polemic.

In other words, even though the "hi-low" leveling concept became a cannon of the "new" musicology and theory, many "classical" performers and composers were still reluctant to fully accept the ideology. They felt some of the popular music held up as examples was clearly lacking in musical substance, even if other areas of the artist's work reflected a new found empowerment of women. If these classical musicians criticized the seemingly superficial musical aspects of artists such as Modonna, they were not merely labeled as retro snobs, but also castigated as being somehow sexist and/or patriarchal. These classical musicians welcomed the way postmodernism opened up new horizons and dissolved the deeply entrenched ideologies within their own fields, but felt that the leveling "hi-low" ideology eroded essential standards and respect for the musicianship needed for their kind of music, which is already being marginalized.

I think that if the arguments had also been placed in the context of commercial/non-comercial music (instead of just hi-low), some of this ideological confusion and tension could have been avoided. We could have examined the artificial privilege of classical music (in all of its white maleness,) but also have acknowledged classical music's special characteristics -- especially as problematized in a market economy. (After all, many women are trying to enter the ranks of the profession. Should we watch it vanish just as they are making inroads?) A less ideological contextualization would have also helped us more precisely identitify the positive contributions artists such as Madonna brought to their field. 

In any case, it is interesting to see how this is all evolving. An interesting example is bell hook's book _Outlaw Culture_ (Routledge, 1994) in which she explains why she thinks Madonna has betrayed feminist women. (See especially: "Power to the Pussy: We don't Wannabe Dicks in Drag") It is also interesting how she castigates the economic structures of our society and yet celebrates Ice Cube with little questioning or analysis of the industry that presents him. 

As for my own standpoint, I hardly have one. I very much appreciate the way postmodernism has opened up new horizons and weakened aesthetic encampments in classical new music, but I also sympathize with the classical musicians who feel an excessive ideology of aesthetic leveling demeans their achievements which are so long and hard to learn and which are already increasingly marginalized. I think the problem could be solved with clearer theoretical work, and that it is, in fact, being developed.

This topic is so complex. In Austira, for example, the situation is just the reverse. Classical music is still the absolute status quo and very sexist, as our discussions about the VPO have illustrated. Best of luck to those working to define and analyze these issues.

William Osborne